In the Napa Valley where I live, most kids taste wine. I remember my own daughter—at 4 years old–sitting at the dinner table one night. She swirled her milk, sniffed it, smiled and said matter-of-factly: “Mama, slightly herbal character.”
But the subject of children and alcohol is filled with controversy. Along with Iraq and Sri Lanka, the U.S. is one of only 12 countries that make kids wait until age 21 before they can legally drink.
Recently I decided to ask several people in the wine business whether they let their kids drink wine. Not surprisingly, the majority do. But for different reasons.
For many, exposing their children to wine early is a way of mitigating abusive drinking later on. “My parents let me taste wine with them when I was very young,” said Suzanne Groth co-owner of Groth Vineyards in the Napa Valley. “I was way more prepared for college than my idiot room mates who had never had any experience with alcohol. With my 13 and 10 year old children, I offer them a taste of anything they want to try. I also am a firm believer that every 10 year old needs to learn how to open a bottle of wine properly.”
For others, letting children taste wine is about developing their palate. “My parents allowed us to taste wines at a young age, but at age 11, we were not big fans of my dad’s preferred tannic cabernets,” said the wine writer Kort van Bronkhorst. “So when we were about 16, they started buying us cheap wine to drink (Gallo Hearty Burgundy). It tasted better with 7-up. The result? Today we all like the big tannic cabernets my father espoused. I used the same formula with my kids.”
For my part, I’ve always thought of wine as part of my daughter’s sensory education. Wine has opened up her sensory world in the same way that listening to music has. As a parent, I would never want to exclude her from that kind of learning.
She’s a teenager now and recently told me she isn’t so interested in wine anymore. Instead she says she wants to understand the different flavors of coffees, and try a whole bunch of cheeses to know how cow cheeses differ from sheep cheeses.
I suspect she’ll have a lifetime of great flavor experiences. And I’m pretty sure it all began with a thimble-full of trockenbeerenauslese.